Four Secrets to Surviving Your First Year of Freelance Writing

Published on 15 March 2021 at 18:42

A year ago, I decided to do something about my long-held dream of being a writer. On a practical level, I knew I had a lot to learn: Where does a writer source work? Is a website necessary? Do I need to register as self-employed? Do I need to internalise every key style guide in existence? And the questions kept emerging as the year evolved.

But this blog is not about the mechanics of starting up as a writer – it’s about mindset.

If anything is going to hold you back, it’s the challenges, setbacks and rejections that – I now realise – are inevitable.  They can very easily cause you to give up; they can knock your confidence like you wouldn’t believe. A year is not a long time - but it’s been a steep learning curve.  I’ve learnt a lot.

So, with the benefit of hindsight, what advice would I give my start-up self?

  1. Eat Humble Pie

I’m not an arrogant person – I hope. Nevertheless, I naively believed that quarter of a century teaching English qualified me as some sort of writing guru. I had visions of clients lining up around the block, desperate to have me write for them and paying me obscene amounts of money for the privilege. Ha! This misplaced confidence was shortly followed by what you’ll all recognise as a tumbleweed moment. Talk about being delusional – the phrase ‘reality check’ is a monumental understatement and doesn’t go anywhere near describing the sobering journey back down to earth that I have experienced. Be prepared for that.

Here’s the truth:  when you go into freelance writing as a career change, you start at the bottom.  Nobody cares how high you rose in your previous career. It quickly became apparent to me that teaching students how to write a half-decent description of a beach is a world away from the diverse expectations of the whole gamut of potential clients. Those clients want content that adds value, whether that is manifested in sales or recognition for their brand. You need to prove yourself, which you do by building a strong portfolio, securing repeat clients and amassing testimonials from credible sources. And because this is a chicken-and-egg situation, bagging that first client requires perseverance, determination, endurance and resilience. I submitted about thirty-five proposals on a bidding site before I acquired my first client. Even then, it paid peanuts.

But it’s competitive out there. You have to start somewhere; you have to accept that, if you love writing, your journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step.

The ego must be prepared to take a little bruising.

  1. Value Yourself and Your Work

I know. I’ve just talked about setting ego aside and recognising the need to start from scratch. You may even write for free at times (on that note, if you do write for free, make sure it’s a charity or some other worthy cause that reaps the benefit of your graft). But there is a fine line between accepting this simple truism and under-valuing yourself as a writer.

Most of us would happily write ‘just because’ – it’s hard to imagine that anyone would become a writer with the sole aim of making shedload of cash. But never forget this: you’re good. True, many writers out there are also good. And because it is so very competitive, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’re not good enough. This is especially true if you start out – as I did – writing for content mills and bidding sites. A succession of unsuccessful proposals can cause you to question yourself and your writing ability, and even invite the dreaded imposter syndrome (that one’s for another post…). Quite often, though, losing out on jobs has nothing whatsoever to do with your writing – on bidding sites, in particular, it can be a ‘race to the bottom’ and clients will often go for the cheapest option. Just try taking a look at the portfolios of other freelancers on these sites – some writers will be as good as you are or better (so they’re fair competition), but many will be pretty pedestrian (making them an obvious choice for less discerning clients). You’re competing with both. I always find that this gives a comforting sense of perspective.

The bottom line is that someone is going to benefit from your skill as a writer. On that basis, you deserve your fair share of the pie, however teeny that is.

  1. Be What You Believe

In my teaching career, it took me years to learn this. Perpetual second-guessing and moulding yourself to adapt to the elusive expectations of others is exhausting. And it doesn’t work. When I found my style and flaunted it with conviction, success followed. I have learnt that lesson rather more quickly in freelancing. Of course, being able to adapt is important; we’re writing for clients, not ourselves. But turning yourself inside out trying to adopt a style that isn’t yours is not going to convince anyone.

 I spent a little time worrying that I didn’t have a wide enough ‘range’ and that I couldn’t write for particular audiences. But so what? I have accepted that I will never fit the stereotype (in my mind, anyway) of a trendy young writer with a fashion fringe and a Den of Geek-style following.  I am so, so envious of this particular niche – but it’s not mine.

The solution? I decided to hone my natural modus operandi:  I write about what I know and enjoy, and exploit my own style to suit the reader.

Go deep, not wide.

  1. Write for Readers

You can’t deny it: it makes sense. It’s all about the reader.

We all know this, of course. But sometimes I think we get it wrong. Before I started writing ‘for real’ I don’t think I’d even heard of the ubiquitous ‘SEO’. Now it’s part of my everyday jargon. It’s part of my aural sub-current.  If you want to be writer in this modern world of ours, it pretty much has to be at the forefront of our minds. Let’s give it due respect. Writers can thrive or die according to their level of SEO savvy.

And yet…

It can be quite saddening to think that the words we so carefully craft are pitched to some inanimate entity: the search engine.  There is a danger, if we aren’t mindful, that the search engine becomes our reader. It’s not. Humankind is comprised of complexities that no computerised algorithm can ever match. There’s something rather cold about writing that is not alert to this unarguable fact. Inexperience rendered me guilty of this. I hope I now know better.

Acknowledge and appreciate the power of SEO – but the reader is king.

You Will Survive

You know how it is – you fall down seven times, stand up eight. That’s just the nature of the beast.

 For me, I am haunted by the old saying that ‘those who can’t do, teach’. It would be so easy to retreat into teaching – the world that I know.  But I am determined to be one of those who ‘can do’.

I need to be mentally prepared to stand up for a ninth time.

And if I can, you can.

I’d love to hear some of your experiences and tips from your first year of freelancing. It’s over to you - please feel free to add Comments below!


Blog by Amanda Ellison

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash



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